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Alternate Futures: British Speculative Fiction and the Politics of Progress Between the Huxleys




Palombo, Nicholas

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation



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Alternate Futures examines the development of speculative fiction in British literature alongside the rise of the two-cultures debate in the late nineteenth century. When Matthew Arnold and Thomas Huxley debated the most appropriate course of education for the British subject—classics or scientific education—they illustrated a growing division between the arts and sciences that persists even in the twenty-first century. However, such an ideological break between the arts and sciences has roots in the distinction between myth and enlightenment that Horkheimer and Adorno point out in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Drawing from Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory that enlightenment ideals push culture towards technocracy and the domination of the subject as well as by using Max Weber’s theory of disenchantment and Walter Benjamin’s theory of mass culture and that the politicization of art is a necessary counter to the aestheticization of politics, I argue that British speculative fiction maps a trajectory of British “progress” that ultimately looks to reconcile the two cultures by challenging the extreme polarity of the debate as well as by challenging the use of science to dominate nature and the human subject. I also argue that the two-cultures debate fuels the emergence of the speculative genre in the nineteenth century as well as its proliferation into the twentieth century. My dissertation examines works by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Samuel Butler, H.G. Wells, Katherine Burdekin, and Aldous Huxley to show speculative fiction’s thematic shift from exploration and observation to experimentation, scientific domination, and technological control over bodies. I argue that speculative fiction moves to reconcile the cultural divide between art and science by revealing the importance of the arts and their close ally, myth, in ideology formation and in a culture increasingly dominated by scientific discourse and rationalism.